Island County History

Island County  the eighth oldest county in Washington, was created on January 6, 1853, by the Oregon Territorial Legislature from a portion of Thurston County and was named for the myriad of islands in Northwestern Washington. It originally encompassed Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, and San Juan Counties. At present, Island County consists of just two large islands, Whidbey and Camano, and six small, uninhabited islands: Smith Island to the west, Deception and Pass islands in Deception Pass, and Ben Ure, Strawberry, and Baby islands in Saratoga Passage. The County fills a large space at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet, has an area of only 220 square miles, the least of any other county, but no less than 1787 islanders.  Its wealth is assessed at half a million.  The area that comprises Island County was first explored by Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) during the spring of 1792. The county has a total area of 517 square miles; 208.4 square miles of land and 309 square miles of water. In area, it is the second smallest county in Washington. It is bounded on the north by Deception Pass, on the south by Puget sound, on the east by Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage, and on the west by Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Whidbey Island, with about 115,000 acres, was one of the earliest places settled in the Puget Sound region and named after one of Vancouver's lieutenants. Whidbey Island is forty miles long and from one to ten miles wide, and separates the two principal channels of the lower Sound. The first settler after Glasgow's attempt was Isaac N. Ebey, who took a claim on the island opposite Port Townsend on October 15, 1850. Another of the earliest settlers there was R. H. Lansdale, who took a claim on Penn's Cove, on the shore of the island, in 1851. Samuel Hancock removed to the island in 1852, and became well known as a pioneer. A large number of others settled there in 1852 and 1853, including Captain Thomas Coupe, founder of Coupeville, the present seat of government for Island County and in 1893 was considered a seat of learning for it boasted an academy.  Utsalady was for many years a place of considerable importance as the location of one of the large sawmills of the Puget Sound Lumbering Company, from which immense quantities of lumber were shipped to all parts of the world. Other towns are Langley, Oak Harbor, and Useless.

The Island of Camano, named after a noted Spanish navigator, contains about 30,000 acres, making a total area for the county of 145,000 acres. It is twelve miles long and from one to six miles wide. 

The first county commissioners of the County were Samuel B. Howe, John Alexander and John Crocket; sheriff, George W. L. Allen; and probate clerk, R. H. Lansdale. The climate of these islands is particularly salubrious, mild and equable, and in summer is especially delightful. They were formerly covered with a heavy growth of fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce and alder, but in recent years, because of its nearness to the water, much of this timber has been removed by the lumbermen of the Sound. There are considerable areas of prairie and swamp lands, which, when reduced to cultivation, produce large crops of hay, wheat, barley, oats, fruit and vegetables. The logged-off lands are excellent for fruit, small fruits, etc. Here are to be found some of the oldest orchards in the state. Many young orchards have been planted in recent years, and the fruit-growing industry is receiving much attention. Sheep and wool have long been successfully grown on Whidbey Island. Easy access to the Sound markets makes lands in this county desirable for a great variety of purposes.

First Settlers

For thousands of years, the only occupants of the Pacific Northwest were Indians who lived in large communal longhouses subsisting on fish, shellfish, wild game as well as roots and berries. Whidbey and Camano Islands, as well as the San Juan Islands were occupied by at least four groups of Northern Straits Salish Indians: Samish, Lummi, Songhees, and Saanich. With the exception of periodic wars with other Indian tribes, life was relatively quiet for many centuries.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Indian population was decimated by disease transmitted through contact with white explorers. In some areas diphtheria, smallpox, and measles killed 90 percent of the Indians. By the time white settlers arrived, some local tribes had populations of only a few hundred and were so depleted they could not effectively resist the intruders.

In the autumn of 1847, Thomas W. Glasgow, after exploring Puget Sound in a canoe, chose a farm site on Whidbey Island, erected a cabin, and planted potatoes, peas, and wheat. Glasgow took an Indian wife, whom he called Julia Pat-Ke-Nim, for companionship and to insure his safety from nearby Indians. In 1848, Glasgow traveled to Tumwater to convince others to join him on fertile Whidbey Island. Antonio B. Rabbeson and A. D. Carnefix agreed to settle on the island. They made the journey by canoe, the only mode of travel around Puget Sound except for an occasional Hudson's Bay Company ship.  Following a misunderstand, Carnefix returned to Tumwater.  The remaining two men continued on and reached Glasgow's cabin on the west side of Whidbey Island near Penn's Cove in July 1848. 

In August, Indians representing every Puget Sound tribe, including the Chehalis, Nisqually, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, and Snohomish, arrived and set up camp at Penn’s Cove on the east side of Whidbey Island near where Glasgow and Rabbeson where located. Within a three-mile radius of the two men’s cabin, there were, in Rabbeson's words, “about eight thousand of these wild men.” Although Rabbeson probably exaggerated, the sight of the immense throng of Indians must have been an impressive one.

On the following day, the Indians held a hunt. They constructed a brush and kelp fence across the width of Whidbey Island between Penn’s Cove and the west side. Then they went some distance to the south and used Indian dogs and “whippers-in” to herd deer and other game towards the fence line. Before the day was over the Indians had captured 60 to 70 deer and “large quantities” of other game and “held the biggest barbecue” Rabbeson had ever seen. Then the men -- in Rabbeson's words about “two thousand bucks” -- held a dance. Rabbeson stated, “We had a desire to witness the whole of the performance but were advised by Glasgow’s woman [Julia Pat-Ke-Nim] to hide until the excitement was over.”

Debate on White Encroachment

The cause of Glasgow’s Indian wife’s concern was that many Natives had expressed a desire to force the white settlers to leave Whidbey Island and other Puget Sound settlements. On the third day of the Indian gathering, they held a “big talk” about this and allowed Glasgow and Rabbeson to attend. Julia Pat-Ke-Nim translated the proceedings from the Lushootseed (Puget Sound Salish) language used by the Indians to the Chinook trading language that both settlers probably knew. The first speaker was Chief Patkanim, who was influential with the Snoqualmie and Snohomish Indians. According to Rabbeson he “spoke very bitterly against the Hudson’s Bay Company, and urged that all the tribes combine to attack and destroy the station at Nisqually, divide the goods and stock, and kill or drive off the King George men [British].”

Another Indian, called by Euro-Americans John Taylor, whose tribal affiliation was not given, expressed a desire to also attack the Boston men (Americans) at Tumwater. John Taylor stated that he had visited Willamette valley (Oregon Territory south of the Columbia River) and “had heard that the Bostons, in their own country, were as numerous as the sands on the beach; and, if something was not done to check their coming, they would soon overrun the country, and the Indians would then be transported in fire ships [ships with cannons] to some distant country where the sun never shone, and there be left to die; and what few Indians escaped … would be made slaves. He urged that then [August 1848] was the time to strike terror to the white man’s heart and avoid future trouble.”

 Learned historian and accomplished writer, Hon. Elwood Evans described the meeting, the council, and their doings most graphically.  He wrote as follows:


"Patkanim exhibited the tact in this instance which marked him as a savage of uncommon intelligence. Parade has a great effect upon the human mind, whether savage or civilized. Patkanim gave a great hunt to the assembled chiefs; a corral was constructed, with wings extending across the island from Penn Grove to Glasgow's claim, and a drive made with dogs, by which more than sixty deer were secured for a grand banquet at the inauguration of the council. Patkanim then opened the conference by a speech, in which he urged if the Americans were allowed to settle among them they would soon become numerous, and would carry off their people in large fire ships to a distant  country, on which the sun never shone, where they would be left to perish. He argued that the few now present could easily lie exterminated, which would discourage others from coming, and appealed to the cupidity of his race by representing that the death of the Americans in the country would put the Indians in possession of a large amount of property ; but the Indians from the upper part of the sound, who were better acquainted with the white people, did not agree with Patkanim. The chief of the bands about Tumwater, Snohodumtah, called by the Americans Grayhead, resisted the arguments of the Snoqualimich chief. He reminded the council that previous to the advent of the Americans the tribes from the lower sound often made war upon the weaker tribes of his section of the country, carrying them off for slaves ; but he had found the presence of the Boston men a protection, as they discouraged wars. Patkanim, angered at this opposition, created a great excitement, which seemed to threaten a battle between the tribes, and Rabbeson,  becoming alarmed, fled back to the settlements. Two days later Glasgow followed, being assisted to escape by a friendly Indian, but leaving behind him all his property." 

Old Gray Head, who represented the sentiments of the Nisqually and Chehalis Indians, stated that the Boston men at Tumwater protected the southern Puget Sound Indians from slave raids and pillaging by the Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and other tribes. The Duwamish apparently sided with Chief Patkamin. Rabbeson said, “The chief of the Duwamish tribe now arose with a great flourish, and said that as his people occupied the country between the Nisquallies and the Snohomish, he would protect [the Nisqually]. Old Gray Head answered that he would rather have one rifle with a Boston behind it … than all of the Duwamishes …” The discussion between the Indians continued and “hard words” were spoken.

Outnumbered, according to Rabbeson’s estimate, 4,000 to one, the two men took the Indians’ comments seriously.  The two men abandoned their Whidbey Island cabin, left their household goods and farm implements behind, and headed back to the settlements at the south end of Puget Sound. It would be two more years before settlers would successfully establish themselves along Puget Sound away from the Cowlitz Farms, the Tumwater/Olympia area, and Nisqually and environs.

 Glasgow took up a claim afterward in Pierce County.

In 1848, very few settlers lived in the Puget Sound region. In 1847, the area of northern Oregon Territory west of the Cascade Mountains (except for the area of the future Clark and Skamania counties) had some 275 British and United States citizens. Nearly all of the settlers lived at three locations:

  • Tumwater, a three year old community located at the south end of Puget Sound, near present-day (2003) Olympia. Nearby were two British Hudson's Bay Company farms and trading posts;  


  • Fort Nisqually located in southern Puget Sound (in 2003, between Tacoma and Olympia about 40 miles south of Seattle);


  • Cowlitz Farm located between Columbia River and Puget Sound at the head of the Cowlitz River near the present-day (2003) town of Toledo, Washington.

These settlements provided access to trading outposts, brought together a community of settlers who had skills that might be exchanged amongst themselves, and provided protection from Indians. Local Indians, including members of the Duwamish, Snoqualmie, and Snohomish tribes, resisted attempts of Euro-Americans to settle other areas of Puget Sound.

Whidbey Island was one of the earliest places settled in the Puget Sound region.  The first settler after Glasgow's attempt was Isaac N. Ebey, who took a claim on the island opposite Port Townsend on October 15, 1850.  Another of the earliest settlers there was R.H. Lansdale, who took a claim on Penn's Cover, on the shore of the island, in 1851.  Samuel Hancock removed to the island in 1852, and became well known as a pioneer.  A large num ber of others settled there in 1852 and 1852, including Captain Thomas Coupe, founder of Coupeville, the present seat of government for Island County.

Isaac Neff Ebey

Of the list of County notables Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey, the first permanent white resident of Whidbey Island, alone remains.  He was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1818 and came to Island County at the age of 32.  His Pennsylvania-born parents father was Jacob Ebey) migrated from their home state of Ohio, removed to Illinois in 1832, and afterwards to Adair County, Missouri.  In Missouri Ebey studied law.  At age 25, Ebey married Rebecca Davis and fathered two sons, Eason and Ellison.  Isaac temporarily left his wife and young sons in Missouri, going on alone to the Oregon country in 1847.  Briefly diverted to California by the gold rush, he headed to Oregon Territory.  There he was a member of the Legislature of Oregon Territory and collector of customs for the Puget Sound District.  While with the service, Ebey spent some time in Olympia, the city he is credited with naming in honor of the Olympic Peninsula mountains to the west of Puget Sound. 

Ebey took the tract opposite the bar at Port Townsend, today still known as Ebey's Landing.  In October 1850, Ebey moved from Olympia to Whidbey Island.  When Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act1 in 1850, Ebey claimed 640 acres for himself and his family overlooking Admiralty Inlet.   In 1851 he sent for his wife and children who arrived in the fall of 1851 with her three brothers and the Samuel Crockett family.  The remainder of Ebey's family followed in October 1854. Among those of Ebey's family who came to the Pacific Northwest were: Ebey's parents, Jacob and Sarah; siblings, Mary, Winfield, and Ruth; Mary's two children, Almira and Polk Wright; a cousin, George Beam. Jacob Ebey claimed ridge land overlooking what is today called Ebey's Prairie. On the same ridge, Isaac Ebey built a blockhouse for protection against raiding Indians. Isaac and Jacob Ebey's land would prove to be some of the most productive in the area and word of this fortune traveled, drawing settlers from the east into the region and starting a rush of settlers who claimed most of the prairie-land by the beginning of 1853.  Besides the Ebeys, other extended families came to Whidbey;  the Crocketts, Hills, Millers, and Alexanders all brought friends, old neighbors, and in-laws to settle and to dominate the county.  Settlement was never random; the census of 1860 shows that one-third of the settlers on Whidbey Island during the 1850s had been born in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  they arrived in a burst of settlement that continued from the late summer of 1852 to the late spring of 1853.  By 1860, all of the best farmland had already been claimed.

In the fall of 1853 the white population of the county was 195.  It would rise to only 294 by 1860.

These people settled almost entirely on the prairie land.  By the early 1850s Whidbey Island had already gained a reputation as the "garden sport of Oregon," the best agricultural land in the Pacific Northwest, or at least in what was to become Washington Territory.  Like other American farmers of European descent on Whidbey Island, Ebey grew wheat and potatoes, as well as onions, carrots, cabbages, parsnips, peas, barley and other grains.  Even men so skeptical of farmland of the Puget Sound region as to compare it with the notoriously poor land of New England exempted Whidbey Island.  For a moment the island landscape and the settler's interests coincided.  The prairies had attracted these men, and they covered the prairies with claims that followed the natural boundaries of the land.  By the springs of 1853 little unclaimed prairie land remained on the island.

Taking advantage of the natural landing at his property on the shores of Admiralty Inlet he built a dock for the commercial ship traffic on Puget Sound in order to facilitate trade from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Because most transportation in the area moved by water, the location of what was now called Ebey's Landing (on the main Puget Sound shipping route) minimized transportation costs. The landing remained active until the turn of the 20th Century when a new dock was built at Fort Casey, just a few miles away.

Ebey was a lawyer by profession, and for years a prominent citizen of the sound country.  During his nine years in the Pacific Northwest, Isaac Ebey was a vital player in territorial affairs. It was he who so largely assisted in the recognition of the Territory, by having, while a member of the Oregon Legislature, drafted and secured the passage of the Monticello Memorial, separating Oregon and Washington Territories in 1853.  He also aided in breaking Thurston County into four smaller areas: Island, Jefferson, King, and Pierce Counties. Serving as prosecuting attorney for the Whidbey Island community he also represented Thurston County (Olympia) in the Oregon Territorial Legislature when that county still stretched to the 49th parallel.  Appointed by President Franklin Pierce to be collector for the Puget Sound district and inspector of revenues at the new state capital in Olympia, Ebey relocated his customs office to Port Townsend and made it the official port of entry for Puget Sound.

After Ebey raised a company of volunteers to fight in the mainland Indian wars of 1855-1856, the United States government bestowed the title of Colonel upon him. Well respected among the residents, prospective volunteers refused to enlist unless they would serve under his command.

Rebecca Ebey was never happy about the family's encounters with local Indians. Living some distance from the other Euro-American farmers, she stayed close to home managing the household during Isaac's long absences. Already weakened by tuberculosis, Rebecca died in 1853 following the difficult birth, and subsequent death, of the Ebeys' newborn daughter, Sarah. Ebey soon married Emily Palmer Sconce, a widow with a daughter named Anna.

In 1857, a party of northern Indians traveled by canoe into Puget Sound on a mission of vengeance. Following the death of one of their chiefs and 27 other tribal members in an attack by the USS Massachusetts the previous year, the Indian party searched for a white Hyas Tyee (great chief) in retaliation. Originally, the intended victim was Dr. John Kellogg, who lived near the present day Admiralty Head lighthouse. On the hot summer evening of August 11, unable to locate Kellogg (who was out of the area), the natives beached at Ebey's Landing and traversed the steep cliff up to Ebey's home. Knocking on Isaac Ebey's door, the natives called him out of the house, shot him dead, and beheaded him.

His tragic fate, as narrated by Evans, is told as follows:

"He was perfidiously and cruelly murdered on August 12th, 1857 by a band of Russian Indians called Kakes or Kikans, who inhabited the northwestern side of Kufrinoff Island, near the head of Prince Frederick's Sound.  They severed his head from his body and carried it to their northern home as a trophy of their murderous malice.  It was subsequently recovered through the intervention of the British authorities.  The band who committed this nefarious deed was led by a brother of an Indian who had lost his life in the spring of that year at Port Gamble, when the United States steamer Massachusetts dislodged the hostile Northern Indians then camped there and compelled them to leave the sound."

The particulars of his murder and the recovery of his severed head are given below, the latter nearly bringing about a battle with the Indians who retained it.  Some stern retaliation should certainly have been exacted for this unprovoked crime and the murderers given up; but in those days such horrors ceased to attract attention, or were soon forgotten from the frequency of their occurrence:

"On August 11, 1857 an event took place on Whidbey Island which caused the greatest consternation through the Territory and threw the whole lower sound country into a state of the greatest alarm and indignation. That night, or toward morning, Colonel Isaac N. Ebey was cruelly murdered at his own house by a band of Northern Indians and his head severed from the body and carried away. The perpetrators of this brutal outrage were a band of Kake Indians. They made a descent upon Whidbey Island, and are supposed to have numbered about 200. During the day they had called at the house of Colonel Ebey and been kindly received. When midnight came, they again went to the house, called him out, shot him, and cut his head off, and made their escape, carrying it away. George W. Corliss, the United States Marshal, and his wife were visiting at the Colonel's ; they and the Colonel's family managed to escape while the Indians were parleying outside of the house, but both Mr. Corliss and his wife were subsequently murdered on the island by the same band and for the same revengeful motive."

Emily and the children fled to Jacob Ebey's blockhouse on the ridge, and George and Lucretia Corliss (in-laws of Phoebe Judson) escaped into the forest. Unwilling to remain on the farm, Emily abandoned it, leaving forever with her daughter Anna. Isaac Ebey's relatives raised Ellison and Eason, and the two brothers later divided their father's farm between them.

There is question whether these raiding Indians were actually Haida (as inscribed on a historical marker at Ebey's Landing). Traditional stories of the Keex' Kwáan (Kake) tribe of Tlingits tell of the raid being led by a female relative of the slain Indian chief in the Massachusetts attack. Those stories also tell that the female leader of the raid was a member of the Tsaagweidí clan. In fact, the Puget Sound Herald of Steilacoom published an article fifteen months after Ebey's assassination stating the Kake and Stikine Indians, "numbering a couple hundred," were responsible for the "cold blooded murder." However, it was never known which particular tribe perpetrated the death and beheading of Colonel Ebey.

The attempt to locate and recover the head of the murdered Colonel was for a long time unsuccessful. During the fall trip, however, of the Hudson's Bay company's steamer Beaver, they visited a village of this tribe--the Kakes--and discovered they were in possession of the head. Chief Trader Dodd, who was on board, sent word to the chiefs of the village that he wished to purchase it. Almost immediately three or four canoes filled with armed men came alongside of the Beaver, and some eight or ten had boarded the ship before their warlike appearance and conduct had been observed. The crew of the Beaver were beat to quarters, the guns run out, and the ship prepared for action. Inquiry was made as to the cause of this hostile attempt. The Indians replied that they supposed that the demand for the head was to be enforced by an attack upon their village if not complied with. Being informed that such was not the intended, quiet was restored; the Indians became peaceable, but still declined on any terms to surrender their ghastly trophy.

Three years after the murder, the scalp of Isaac Ebey was recovered by Captain Charles Dodd of the Hudson's Bay Company and given to Ebey's brother Winfield. Dodd acquired the scalp for the price of "Six Blankets, 3 pipes, 1 cotton handkerchief, 6 heads of Tobacco, 1 fthm. Cotton".

On April 5 1860, Winfield Ebey noted in his diary the much awaited return of his brother's "poor head":

"Captain Coupe got over from Port Townsend bringing my friend A. M. Poe Esquire. Mr. P. brings my brother's scalp which was recovered from the Northern Indians by Captain Dodd. At last this memento is received. At last a portion of the mutilated remains of my dear brother is returned. Near three years has elapsed since his murder and now his poor head [or a portion of it] returns to his home. The skin of the head is entire contained, the ears and most of the hair. The hair looks quite natural. It is a sad memento of the past."

Isaac Ebey's body was interred in the original Ebey family cemetery (see Section A of Sunnyside Cemetery, this site) located at Ebey's Prairie on the bluff near Isaac and Rebecca's home. Ebey's first wife Rebecca was already interred in that location along with their daughter Hetty. While some historians insist that Winfield had the head or scalp buried with his brother's body, no official record bears testament to this.

The rest of the Ebey family is officially interred at Sunnyside Cemetery, 50 feet from the burial place of Isaac.

Ebey's Legacy

Fort Ebey (established in 1942) on the west side of the central part of the island (just northwest of Coupeville) is named in Colonel Ebey's honor. The land claimed by Isaac and his father Jacob is still called Ebey's Prairie and is farmed to this day.

Ebey's Landing, while no longer a docking port, is named for the beachfront located just below the still-standing home Ebey lived in with his family. The Landing is now a National Historical Reserve and was the first NHR in the nation.

County Growth

In 1903 Island County had a population of 2,500 with assessed valuation of property, $1,099,544.  According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Island County had a population of 71,558; 22,477 living in incorporated cities and towns and 49,081 living in unincorporated areas.   The estimated population in 2004 was 79,293. This was an increase of 10.81% from the 2000 census. 


1 The first settlers filed their claims under either the donation Land Laws off Oregon and Washington or the Preemption Act.  The Donation Land Law, passed by Congress in 1850 and extended explicitly to Washington after creation of that territory in 1853, granted 320 acres to each male settler over eighteen who was, or intended to become, a citizen, and who had arrived in the territory before December 1, 1850.  If the settler married before December 1, 1851, his wife also was entitled to 320 acres.  To perfect title the settler had to occupy and  cultivate his land for four consecutive years.  Settlers who arrived after December 1, 1850, but before December 1, 1854, could claim 160 acres under the same terms.  Under the Preemption Act of 1841, 160 acres of surveyed land could be acquired for $1.15 an acre, and the Donation Land Law, as amended in July of 1854, extended the Preemption Act provisions to unsurveyed land.



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Coffman, Noah B., Old Lewis County Oregon Territory. Rochester, WA: Southwest Washington Pioneers, 1926.

Cook, Jimmie Jean, A particular friend, Penn’s Cove: A History of the Settlers, Claims and Buildings of Central Whidbey Island.  Coupeville, WA: Island County Historical Society, 1973.

Hawthorne, Julian, ed., History of Washington: the evergreen state, from early dawn to daylight, vol. 2.  New York: American Historical Publishing Co., 1893.

Meany, Edmond Stephen, History of the State of Washington.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909.

Prosser, William Farrand, A History of the Puget Sound Country: Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People.  The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.